Identifying the blessings around you takes work, but it’s worth the journey.

Identifying the blessings around you takes work, but it’s worth the journey.

Think of the brain as a network of highways, says Shauna Shapiro, Santa Clara University Professor of Counseling Psychology. The roads you use most—your common practices and reactions—are the paved and well-traveled highways. These are your habits. Everything else—the narrow country roads and dirt trail, perhaps overgrown weeds or obstructed by fallen trees—those are the practices you don’t use as often. The ones you’d like to adopt but haven’t yet. Your non-habits.

Now, consider gratitude. For me, being grateful is one of those country roads. Gratitude requires intentionality—a pause from the natural impulse to obsess within and instead look outward. To consider every person and force around you and the role it plays in making you happy, successful, valued, and welcomed.

To tap into gratitude takes more than a holiday every November. It takes practice.

Back to Shapiro: “Our repeated experiences shape our brain,” she says. “What we practice becomes stronger. Everything we practice, every single moment matters.”

To be grateful is to be aware. Identifying the ways your community supports you—from people to organizations and entities, everything you take for granted—illuminates your role and value within it.

You might even see where others need your help and aren’t getting it. It’s powerful stuff.

Take the story of Professor Emeritus Francisco Jiménez, a child of migrant laborers who was hauled from a California classroom by immigration officials when he was a boy and deported to Mexico. He returned and in the decades since, his writing and teaching have inspired millions.

Or right here on campus: gratitude for the vital and trivial. Our magazine interns talked to students around campus about all they’re thankful for: everything from God, family, and opportunity to water fountains, text messages, perfect emerald green rulers, and Kevin Durant.

And from here across the globe: Santa Clara Magazine editor Steven Boyd Saum served as an election observer in Belarus, where there hasn’t been a free and fair election in more than two decades. When people in Belarus say their vote doesn’t matter, that might mean something. Likewise, the survival of a liberal democracy relies upon a free press—not something we can take for granted there or here.

Wherever you are, how about gratitude for mindfulness? For years, experts thought each person had a baseline of happiness. In her work, Shauna Shapiro has seen how repeated experiences shape our brain. While money and success won’t affect your happiness, changing the landscape of your brain can. How amazing is that?

In times of upheaval, pausing to acknowledge the blessings outside yourself—from the joy of watching the Warriors to the load-bearing pillars of religion—can be the best respite. This Thanksgiving, take a deep breath and lean into gratitude. Dive into it.

Feel better? Well, keep practicing.


Detail from “The Valley Then and Now” mural by Gerald Sullivan, S.J.